Deborah Hill Cone
Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Helping Dad adjust to his new life


A week ago I'd never been in an old folks' home - neither had my father and now he's looking angry.

Naming clothes is one of the many new things you learn about when you first put your parent in an old folks' home. Photo / Thinkstock
Naming clothes is one of the many new things you learn about when you first put your parent in an old folks' home. Photo / Thinkstock

This is weird. Here I am, sitting on the floor with a Vivid pen, writing John Hill, John Hill, John Hill inside all my dad's clothes. It's easy to write on chinos, shirts and big old guy Y-fronts but the fluffy socks are harder.

Naming clothes is one of the many new things you learn about when you first put your parent in an old folks' home. Such pleasing symmetry; just last week I was naming my 5-year-old son's school uniform.

And a week ago I'd never really been in an old person's home.

Neither had my dad and yet, now here he is. Looking both angry and dejected. The first thing you notice is the loud alarms beeping (sensors let the nurses know if someone is walking around, apparently). Also the daytime television: ads for snoring remedies, medical alarms and a strange plastic device you rub your feet on in the shower to clean them. "Never get into bed with dirty feet again."

Despite the bibs and orange cordial in plastic cups - measuring out life in coffee spoons - this is a very nice residential care facility or whatever they call it.

There is a cat and bookshelves full of old thrillers.

My dad's neighbour is allowed her little dog and there are chickens out the back. There is also a lot of knick-knackery with a faux Victorian vibe - I didn't notice a pennyfarthing cycle but I'm sure there is one somewhere.

In any other setting I would find the tchotchkes cheesily kitsch but here it is strangely comforting: artificial flowers, an antique Singer sewing machine, Holly Hobbie-type sculptures and a novelty pottery monkey that says "Nuts about work". That's fortuitous because looking after old people sure is hard slog.

There is one nurse with pink hair whose vitality and youth seems extra vivid and rockstar-like in the midst of decrepitude. She doesn't talk with that fake cheer common to the, ugh, helping professions. Just the fact of her normal tone makes me want to hug her. (A note out there to all young women who think they are fat or ugly: you'd be well advised to come and hang out in old people's homes where you will realise you are dewy and beautiful.)

I helped the kind nurse shower my dad. She wore white gumboots like a freezing worker, and a plastic apron. My boots got wet but it didn't matter. I don't know how long it had been since dad had a proper shower.

Dad, who has been extremely grumpy since a series of strokes robbed him of speech, even managed to say "Yes!" after she trimmed his beard. I can't quite express what a good day that was.

Normally Dad does not accept help. How could he; his fury is what was keeping him alive. The doctor at his new home asked us what Dad's interests were. What could we say? "Before his stroke he was a neurologist with a passionate interest in quantum physics? He started a vigil for political prisoners? He also liked playing bridge and could speak Zulu, but now he can't talk or read or write in English and just watches Emmerdale Farm?" If you haven't yet been through the stage of your parent becoming infirm and unable to care for themselves, you have an existential treat in store.

It makes you learn things, and not just about adult diapers.

This week I went to see Neil Young playing at the Vector Arena. We were not in mosh pit. "Our bladders are not what they used to be," said a grey-haired fan as he took his seat.

Fair enough; I almost wet myself as 68-year old Neil Young rocked out like someone possessed: "mesmerising, harrowing, lucid and bleary".

There are different ways to get old but the noble way is an heroic angry struggle. Neil Young said he had restrained himself for a long time from writing any more protest songs, waiting for someone younger to do it, but no one seemed to be saying anything.

So he carried on rocking. Better to burn out than just fade away. We are all just trying to hold on to the notion of who we once were.

Back at the rest home the nice nurse suggested I write "Dr Hill" on Dad's clothes, instead of John Hill. He seemed to like that.

- NZ Herald

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